On Darkness in YA Literature
By now most of you have read the Wall Street Journal article that appeared on June 4th called “Darkness Too Visible” by Meghan Cox Gurdon, which decried the dark themes in today’s YA literature. After it came out, the Internet erupted with responses, including over 15,000 tweets and many blogs posts and articles from YA authors and others in the writing/publishing community. (Nathan Bransford gave some good links.) All of this happened when I was on vacation and blissfully unaware, but now I’ve read the article, dozens of the tweets and a handful of the posts and I do have something to say.
Let’s cut the “bulldozing” language
I would never presume to jump to the defense of the entire publishing industry, as that’s not my job. Yet I also don’t appreciate sweeping generalizations about a publishing industry that according to Ms. Cox Gurdon, supposedly tries to “bulldoze coarseness or misery” into our children’s lives. Nobody is bulldozing anything. Writers are writing, publishers are publishing, and readers are making their choices and buying. Nobody is forcing us to read anything we don’t want to read. There are plenty of choices: thousands of books being currently published, and libraries full of millions of books published in years past. We all have to make our choices and stop acting like publishing is forcing something down our throats.
The roles of art and mass media
Does art reflect the culture? Or does it create the culture? Same questions with mass media (which includes books). Reflect or create? Obviously there’s a reciprocal relationship, with books, movies and TV shows both reflecting public taste and determining it. So it’s a little disingenuous to only focus on the idea that these “dark” themes in books will infiltrate kids’ minds and create darkness where none existed before. There is a reason for so much darkness in YA literature and it’s this: our kids are growing up in a world that contains considerable darkness. Writers and publishers are not creating it out of thin air—it’s coming from the hearts and minds of people, real people, many of whom have struggled through dark times themselves. To accuse writers and publishers of doing all of this strictly out of some evil profit motive is to totally deny the reality the exists behind the dark YA books: the darkness in many teens’ lives.
The role of the parent
As the mother of two adolescent girls, I take care to help them choose strong, well-written fiction that suits their interests, taking into account each of their individual needs and personalities. I don’t censor and I’ve never said, “No, you can’t read this book.” When books include dark or difficult themes (some of my daughters’ recent choices have included a novel about cutting and a true account of the Columbine massacre) I use it as an opportunity to engage in conversation, hear their thoughts on these topics, and help them process when necessary.
And yes, like Ms. Cox Gurdon, I’m a little leery of some of the darkest of the YA themes out there—not because I’m afraid the evil publishing lords are trying to bulldoze into my kids’ lives, and not because I think it shouldn’t exist—but because I know my kids. I know their hearts, I’m pretty aware of the kinds of themes they can deal with and those they’re not ready for. So I approach the shelves with discernment, and I am teaching my kids discernment, too. We have conversations about how the input we allow into our minds deeply affects who we are and who we become. When it comes to TV, music, or books, we discuss making wise choices.
Will there come a day when they want to read something I find objectionable? Undoubtedly. It’s my job as a parent to figure out what to do in that situation—whether to dictate or negotiate or simply let it be. I accept this responsibility; and while there are many books I wouldn’t deem appropriate for my own kids (at their current ages) I accept that these books exist, that their writers have the right to express these stories, and that these books may be appropriate for some kids even if they’re not for mine.
What about a rating system?
I do find it curious that we kind of freak out when someone suggests warning labels or rating systems or other such mechanisms to help parents choose material that’s appropriate for their own kids. After all, the motion picture industry has had this in place for decades and nobody bats an eyelash. Since “YA” can cover ages from as young as 12 to as old as 17 (a ridiculous range) I do think it would be helpful to have some kind of maturity rating on teen books. This is especially true since teens mature at different rates and have individual emotional/psychological makeups that determine their readiness and ability to handle more mature themes. I can’t see anything like this really happening, but as a parent, I can tell you, it takes a lot of work to help my kids choose appropriate books and I appreciate all the help I can get! If all YA books were marked something like, “Best for age 12-13” or “14-15” or “16-17” I think that would go a long way toward helping parents and teachers choose amongst the vast quantities of YA books out there.
I think the review by Ms. Cox Gurdon has some nuggets of truth and good intentions but went terribly awry and sounded (a) hysterical, (b) ignorant of the dark realities for many teens who find solace in dark YA fiction, and (c) accusatory toward the publishing industry.
But that’s just me. What do you think?
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© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent